Truancy Volume 267: Ikonika

With a career spanning back from the late 2000s to today, Ikonika has long been regarded as a key name in the UK club music scene. Going back to 2008, she’s released on flagship labels like Hyperdub and Planet Mu, as well as what could have been a one-off 10″ for Don’t Be Afraid’s DBA Dubs series. This summer she put out the Bodies EP on Don’t Be Afraid, a four-track release that saw her  delve into Detroit-leaning electro mode, with shades of freestyle reminiscent of 2013’s Aerotropolis. On top of that, her latest Hyperdub release, Hollow, will drop in a few short weeks. Tracks from both of these releases appear woven into her Truancy Volume, a mix that sees her let loose and show what she would play in a club if she could get into one right now. In this mix, she truly runs the gamut of sounds, from emotional rnb edits to crunchy techno flavours and grime fixes. In a frank and open interview, we discussed how she approaches working with different labels, the impact of parenting on her workflow and how she sees things panning out in a post-COVID landscape.

How are you, how are you keeping? “Yeah, all right I suppose. It’s been more busy than usual, but that’s just cause I’ve been looking after my daughter, that’s about it really cause it’s lockdown.”

Is she out of school? “No, she’s 20 months old. She’s kind of full on (laughs).” I’ve an almost five-year old and an almost two-year-old so I hear you. “Yeah yeah, cool.” I didn’t know that, congratulations! “Thanks!”

With lockdown, not to be too obvious but how has that affected your work? “I’m glad you asked it like that, cause everyone else says ‘oh it must be great for you to be on lockdown and make bare tunes’ – that’s not the case, at all! It’s been a bit frustrating really because, you make tunes, you escape and you make those tunes, but I don’t really have that at the moment, so I’ve been looking at other avenues of self-care, you know just keep focused. I try and work, it’s all about juggling shit. It’s been pretty hard. I’m not going to pretend like it’s all good. When I hear half my mates, like “yeah I’ve been doing acid all day and making 50 tunes”, I’m like, lucky you. You get it, I’m happy you get it, in a weird way. It’s cool, there’ll be more time somewhere. Just be a bit more creative.”

When you have been making music, have you been trying different stuff, because with clubs not being open right now – has that changed your focus? “I packed up my studio – my studio is half a nursery, half decks in a corner basically. I packed up all my hardware, there’s no synths. I had just bought a mic for some strange reason, thinking I could dash out a few vocal sessions, before I gave birth, but I realised that vocalists are always on a long ting. So that didn’t happen. I have all this equipment and nowhere to put it. Before lockdown I was using pirate studios a lot, just taking a day off and working on music, and that was really nice and it felt like I was getting some momentum back. I already downgraded my studio, so in some ways I was prepared. But I was looking forward to getting back in the zone, and that kind of fell through a little bit. I’m just happy that I made bare tunes before I gave birth. I prepared myself.”

That brings me on to asking – recently you put out the release with Don’t Be Afraid and there’s another release coming soon on Hyperdub. How long ago would you have made this stuff? “I was juggling between the two – maybe I started them in 2017/2018. I did Oral Suspension, and then Semtek/Benji from Don’t Be Afraid was like ‘I’m gonna need an EP from you’. Ok, let me just finish up a couple of things. I think I was finishing up Distractions. I was like, yeah yeah, it’s coming. I’ll fix you up nice don’t worry. I did “Nobody” first, and he was like ‘yeah, banger. I want this as the lead track, as the a1’. Obviously that didn’t happen, it’s A2. Then I made “Your Body”, and I was listening to loads of Detroit electro stuff, a lot of Detroit In Effect, and bits of pieces of jit and stuff, and that kind of inspired me to do “Your Body”. Me and Benji were in conversation, like ‘I’ll send you tunes as I make them, but I’ll have you in mind and I’ll have don’t be afraid and your audience in mind’, a little bit.

So it was me being like ‘this is my stance on techno’. I would have all these conversations with him, like ‘your audience is very much white and techno and house and techno, and I’m not from that, so just keep that in mind’. I think it was a good learning experience for both of us, to meet in the middle. Just a lot of compromise, a lot of back and forth with the EP, and I think that’s why it took a while to surface. I did the Roller mix for “Bodied”. The OG mix was on Laurel Halo’s DJ KiCKs – he liked it, but it wasn’t right for the label. But I said ‘why would you not show your audience that?’ So we met in the middle, I did the Roller mix that was more freestyle-orientated. I’ve got enough experience with labels to push someone like his buttons, but at the same time understand where he’s coming from and his vision with his label, and what he puts out he feels strongly about. I didn’t mind that cause it’s good in my big age to be pushed, like that. I don’t want anyone to be like “yes” all the time when it comes to my tunes and not push me.”

So with Hyperdub, who you’ve obviously had a long relationship with, what was that like? Business as usual? “I think the main thing was, I felt that there wasn’t much of a story behind the tunes, other than real life. Usually when I release with Hyperdub I always like to let my mind drift a bit, and make up these stories of escapism and fantasy and science fiction and dystopia, and with these tracks I just wanted them to bang, simple as. Straightforward, they’re pretty simple in arrangement, and they’re to be played loud. I don’t know if I’m ever going to hear them in a club, but I just want people to blast it where they can blast it. In their headphones, in the car, it’s all good. I spent a lot of [time] making sure the loops of those tunes were full on and really weighty as well, I just wanted them to pump. Is that too little to say? They’re functional?”

It’s up to you! If that’s what it’s for, that’s what it’s for. The artwork, when I think of it, it’s not a million miles away from Aerotropolis, but there’s something quite dark about it, the weird people, and the lighting is very strange. “Optigram loves to have a vision for me, every time he does artwork for me and I’m always like ‘yeah that’s exactly it’.”

Have you been doing much cooking during lockdown? “Yeah tonnes, I was actually thinking, if I’m unable to DJ again, I might do kind of like a supper club vibe, I’ll go to people’s houses, cook for them and their mates, and just do that really. My dad’s Egyptian and my mum’s Filipino, so I’ve always had Arab and Asian food in my life, always mixing them together, so I kind of want to do that – we’ll see.”

Do you still live near Heathrow? “Yeah, I certainly do. I was living with my mum all this time, but I’ve moved not too far from her, like 10 minutes down the road. I’m closer to the runway. Even right now I’m sitting on the green and I can see the air traffic control tower.” Has it been quieter? “Yeah, it’s been really quiet.” Do you get used to the sounds? “Yeah you get used to it and it’s exciting cause I can just go on my balcony and watch planes take off and land. Pre-lockdown, they would take off and land every two minutes. And the only time it’s been like this was when that volcano ash cloud happened. I think they’re running at 10% (capacity). Which is funny because for years we would always get these letters about the third runway, I’m opposed to it personally, and Heathrow is running at full capacity, and now it’s barely running. And it’s really really weird. But I’m just worried about the workers. My mum retired last Christmas, I’m happy she doesn’t have to deal with all that shit. I don’t know what it means for people’s jobs. Cause everyone round here works at the airport. If you’re not a tradesman you’re a worker at the airport.”

It’s that whole thing, obviously you want everyone to be safe for as long as possible, but also, people are out of work and what’s going to happen there. There’s no easy answer. On that note! You’ve done a couple of bits and pieces for the various Bandcamp days, have you felt a good bump from that? “Yeah totally! It’s made me optimistic that I can be a producer – not that I don’t like DJing, but I’ve got a kid and a mortgage, I’m thinking if I can’t have my main source of income, now the productions are popping off. Even the merch has kept me above water, which I’m really grateful for.”

You just did a load of hoodies recently? “Yeah, there’s T-shirts coming too with the Hollow artwork. I just want to spend better time on the merch. I’m not trying to do no Gildan, I want stuff people can actually like and feel. Scratcha DVA is my little model, and he’s like ‘this is the best hoodie, it hides my belly!’ Just realistic shit like that. The T-shirts are nice, the hoodies, are niiice, I’m thinking of doing facemasks.”

Have you got anything for next week? “Is the Bandcamp thing next week? I’ve got a lot of choice. Cause I’ve realised, it’s nice to release on a label and have everything taken care of in that respect, but it’s nice to give something directly to the people that want it, and don’t want to wait years, like “I heard it on radio, like time ago, is this one getting released?” All that kind of chat. I just want to bypass certain things. Just have stuff available.”

I suppose when it is things like a one off or the rarities thing you did, it’s not going to interfere with a release cycle with a label. It’s its own thing. “Yeah exactly. It’s funny, the PR cycle – even me releasing two EPs in a year, that’s a bit unheard of. Nobody has that choice any more. With labels, you’ve got to listen to the artist, and maybe just give them better shares in a release. The usual split is 50/50, especially if artists are just doing digital as well – we can ask for more now. Labels know now, they’re not as important. The music is first now, for once. My first release is what, 2008, the recession happened. I was lucky that my early records would sell out. I’ve seen over the years, in a decade. “We’ll press 1,500.” Now it’s like, ‘we’ll be lucky if we break even on 300!’ I think maybe labels need to rethink things as well. We all just need to be more creative. I’m not really against streaming. I see that like a resume. It’s not important for me, I’m not relying on it, especially when I’ve got Bandcamp now, so it’s good when things get playlisted and your tunes get into different hands. Which is what you want as an artist! You want more people to hear your stuff, and you want to stay real. You don’t want to sell yourself short, or make music that doesn’t fit you. I don’t think streaming is important, but I think it plays a role, especially in my music, especially recently – the Bodies EP has got editorial playlists, and they gave me my own playlist. Things like that are really interesting.”

And since you’re not in a position to actually DJ, is that a way of DJing in an abstract sense? “Yeah, I joked, I did an all-night playlist takeover, this is the closest you’ll get to a DJ set. I haven’t had any offers come in, for the end of this year, beginning of next year. It’s calm. I might do some streaming stuff – nobody’s even asked me so I’m like, should I even bother with this DJ thing? I was saying to someone the other day, when things get back to normal – I don’t think they’re going to get back to normal! If they do ever get back to normal, it will just be the people who have been doing it the best might survive, but I think for smaller artists like me… it’s just all… (laughs) I don’t even think I can comment really. I don’t think I’m “important” as a DJ. That’s really pessimistic but I have to think of these things! This is my livelihood, this is my career and this is my life’s work. What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to go work for Amazon? It’s tough times really, for me anyway. I’m open to offers by the way!”

The mix that you did for us is sick, thank you very much. You’ve got a load of people going “oh during lockdown I’m getting into ambient” or different things, but your mix is pretty much full on from the start. “It was definitely a release for me. The only other kind of ambient that I’m listening to is guided meditation, and you don’t want me to release two hours of that, or an hour of that. The club means so much to me, the whole… not even the music and being in the club, but the whole vibe. It’s been my whole life for over a decade. And the fact that I can’t be silly in a club right now is just a bit hard.”

Had you continued to go clubbing after your daughter was born or did you take a breather? “I took a little breather, but it made me more into it. A whole day and night was planned, it was my day off, let my hair down and indulge a little bit. Be around people and just see my friends. My group of friends, we’re all music heads, we’re all artists – sometimes that’s the only time we get to see each other. I live so far from south and east, where everything pops off. Even Scratcha – that’s my best mate and he lives in Luton, so for us, we would always link in London and do our thing and hang out, grab something to eat, drink and have fun. So it still means something to me and it’s part of my social thing but it’s the only time we get to catch up on work, chat about what we’re working on, stuff like that.”

The mix – was it just “I’m going to bang it out” or was there a story? “I think if I was playing out, that would be a similar set to what I’d be playing. A lot of people know me as a hybrid DJ, and that’s exactly what I am. And that’s what I’m always going to be. I think that gets a bit distracting. Cause I think people want you to play one genre, and just own that, but I’ve never done that, and there’s so much club music that isn’t represented properly.”

You definitely cover a lot of ground. “It’s about blends, I’m trying to bring some kind of emotion to you as well. that’s why I love rnb tunes and edits.”

I noticed that there were at least two Neptunes reworks – the Britney Spears one, and Light Ya Ass On Fire. “Yeah so it’s Girl Unit’s remix of Britney Spears, I don’t know if it’s coming out – that particular remix or edit or whatever, that is the definition of what I do and what a lot of my peers do. I think the other one is Akash’s Ashanti edit? Rnb is my first love.”

Just as I think of it, there’s Eve and Alicia Keys in there as well? “Oh yeah it is! That’s Mischief, grime producer. He’s so sick at flipping rnb samples and turning them into grime tunes.”

It’s really chopped up to bits but the melody is there. “Yeah that’s such a beautiful edit. He’s got so many tunes on his Bandcamp that are sick. Sick!! Anyone that understands rnb or whatever, 90s rnb or 00s rnb and you hear it repurposed? I don’t know his age, but I love hearing youngers do that shit. I feel like an auntie! It’s something really simple when I think of it, I would love to do shit like that, but I’m so crap at sampling! It’s nice to have someone do it for you. When you play it in your sets, say you’re playing some microgenre, and you’re playing in the middle of god knows where in Europe, and you start playing those kind of edits, it makes people understand where you’re coming from.”

I suppose that’s why you have so many Bmore or Jersey or Philly versions of pops songs I guess. “Yeah, I love that shit. what can I say?”

Ikonika: Soundcloud, Facebook, Twitter, Resident Advisor, Instagram

Photo by Lizzy Nicholson

You can download Truancy Volume 267: Ikonika in 320 kbps and view the full tracklist by supporting Truants on Patreon here. Your support allows Truants to continue running as a non-profit and ad-free platform. Members will receive exclusive access to mixes, tracklistings, and merchandise. We urge you to support the future of independent music journalism – a little support would go a long way.

Aidan Hanratty

Dublin ...